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From Completed Questionnaires to Analyzable Data

It can be very exciting to receive those first few completed surveys back from respondents. Hopefully you’ll even get more than a few back, and once you have a handful of completed questionnaires, your feelings may go from initial euphoria to dread. Data are fun and can also be overwhelming. The goal with data analysis is to be able to condense large amounts of information into usable and understandable chunks. Here we’ll describe just how that process works for survey researchers.

As mentioned, the hope is that you will receive a good portion of the questionnaires you distributed back in a completed and readable format. The number of completed questionnaires you receive divided by the number of questionnaires you distributed is your response rate. Let’s say your sample included 100 people and you sent questionnaires to each of those people. It would be wonderful if all 100 returned completed questionnaires, but the chances of that happening are about zero. If you’re lucky, perhaps 75 or so will return completed

questionnaires. In this case, your response rate would be 75% (75 divided by 100). That’s pretty darn good. Though response rates vary, and researchers don’t always agree about what makes a good response rate, having

three-quarters of your surveys returned would be considered good, even excellent, by most survey researchers. There has been lots of research done on how to improve a survey’s response rate. We covered some of these previously, but suggestions include personalizing questionnaires by, for example, addressing them to specific respondents rather than to some generic recipient such as “madam” or “sir”; enhancing the questionnaire’s credibility by providing details about the study, contact information for the researcher, and perhaps partnering with agencies likely to be respected by respondents such as universities, hospitals, or other relevant

organizations; sending out prequestionnaire notices and postquestionnaire reminders; and including some token of appreciation with mailed questionnaires even if small, such as a $1 bill.

The major concern with response rates is that a low rate of response may introduce nonresponse bias into a study’s findings. What if only those who have strong opinions about your study topic return their questionnaires? If that is the case, we may well find that our findings don’t at all represent how things really are or, at the very least, we are limited in the claims we can make about patterns found in our data. While high return rates are certainly ideal, a recent body of research shows that concern over response rates may be overblown (Langer, 2003).


Several studies have shown that low response rates did not make much difference in findings or in sample representativeness (Curtin, Presser, & Singer, 2000; Keeter, Kennedy, Dimock, Best, & Craighill, 2006; Merkle & Edelman, 2002).


For now, the jury may still be out on what makes an ideal response rate and on whether, or to what extent, researchers should be concerned about response rates. Nevertheless, certainly no harm can come from aiming for as high a response rate as possible.

Whatever your survey’s response rate, the major concern of survey researchers once they have their nice, big stack of completed questionnaires is condensing their data into manageable, and analyzable, bits. One major advantage of quantitative methods such as survey research, as you may recall from

Chapter 1


, is that they enable researchers to describe large amounts of data because they can be represented by and condensed into numbers. In order to condense your completed surveys into analyzable numbers, you’ll first need to create a codebook. A codebook is a document that outlines how a survey researcher has translated her or his data from words into numbers. An excerpt from the codebook I developed from my survey of older workers can be seen in

Table 8.2 "Codebook Excerpt From Survey of Older Workers"

. The coded responses you see can be seen in their original survey format in

Chapter 6 "Defining and

Measuring Concepts"


Figure 6.12 "Example of an Index Measuring Financial Security"

. As you’ll see in the table, in addition to converting response options into numerical values, a short variable name is given to each question. This shortened name comes in handy when entering data into a computer program for analysis.

Table 8.2 Codebook Excerpt From Survey of Older Workers Variable

# Variable Name Question Options

11 FINSEC In general, how financially secure would you say you are? 1 = Not at all secure 2 = Between not at all and moderately secure 3 = Moderately secure 4 = Between moderately secure and very secure 5 = Very secure 12 FINFAM Since age 62, have you ever received money from family members

or friends to help make ends meet? 0 = No 1 = Yes

13 FINFAMT If yes, how many times? 1 = 1 or 2 times

2 = 3 or 4 times 3 = 5 times or more 14 FINCHUR Since age 62, have you ever received money from a church or other

15 FINCHURT If yes, how many times? 1 = 1 or 2 times 2 = 3 or 4 times 3 = 5 times or more 16 FINGVCH Since age 62, have you ever donated money to a church or other

organization? 0 = No 1 = Yes

17 FINGVFAM Since age 62, have you ever given money to a family member or

friend to help them make ends meet? 0 = No 1 = Yes

If you’ve administered your questionnaire the old fashioned way, via snail mail, the next task after creating your codebook is data entry. If you’ve utilized an online tool such as SurveyMonkey to administer your survey, here’s some good news—most online survey tools come with the capability of importing survey results directly into a data analysis program. Trust me—this is indeed most excellent news. (If you don’t believe me, I highly

recommend administering hard copies of your questionnaire next time around. You’ll surely then appreciate the wonders of online survey administration.)

For those who will be conducting manual data entry, there probably isn’t much I can say about this task that will make you want to perform it other than pointing out the reward of having a database of your very own analyzable data. We won’t get into too many of the details of data entry, but I will mention a few programs that survey researchers may use to analyze data once it has been entered. The first is SPSS, or the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (


). SPSS is a statistical analysis computer program designed to analyze just the sort of data quantitative survey researchers collect. It can perform everything from very basic descriptive statistical analysis to more complex inferential statistical analysis. SPSS is touted by many for being highly accessible and relatively easy to navigate (with practice). Other programs that are known for their accessibility include MicroCase (


), which includes many of the same features as SPSS, and Excel (



), which is far less sophisticated in its statistical capabilities but is relatively easy to use and suits some researchers’ purposes just fine. Check out the web pages for each, which I’ve provided links to in the chapter’s endnotes, for more information about what each package can do.